I’ve been watching classic movies my whole life. As a kindergartener, I was so scared by Young and Innocent’s blinking, black-faced murderer I refused to participate in an eye-closing exercise. My childhood Saturdays were filled with Svengoolie’s best, my dad and I recording them and trying to edit out the commercials. For anyone not forty-plus and American, Svengoolie is the Chicago-area local TV kid-friendly horror movie host.
King Kong, The Mole People, Frankenstein, Godzilla, Creature from the Black Lagoon. Well, wait, we watched Creature with 3D glasses we got through a supermarket promotion, and it was a night-time thing, not a Svengoolie.
The 3D effect barely worked, but it was a nice thought.
By twelve, I was a big Thin Man fan. I don’t remember how I first saw it. There are many possibilities because I grew up with classic movies: my parents, their friends, my best friend’s parents, a grandma, an aunt, neighbors, video store clerks. There was always someone around talking about an old movie. It’s entirely possible I first saw Thin Man when it came out on VHS, and my parents and their friends rented it to watch, presumably for the first time without commercials.
It’s much easier to be a classic movie fan when you’re not living in the era before the TV listings (only available in the newspaper) even identified what old movie was airing in the 2 a.m. slot.
I do remember my mom and I watched Ex-Mrs. Bradford at some point around then, too, back when we went through the movie listings in the Sunday TV supplement to see if anything good was playing. We got cable around that time, but comprehensive listings were a few years off, and I don’t remember if we had AMC at the start.
AMC would become a big deal. I used to record AMC during the day, come home from work, watch taped AMC until I fell asleep, wake up, go to work, repeat. I rarely made it through two movies unless they were short. Though, kind of wonderfully, classic movies tend to be short.
But it took me a while to get into classic movies beyond the Universal monster movies or The Thin Man. Color Hitchcock didn’t count as classics because they were in color. Growing up in the early eighties, lots of TV was still the sixties, which were in color. The fifties always surprised me when they were in color. Then the thirties Technicolor musicals would completely bewilder.
If you had color, why didn’t you always use it?
The thing about black and white in the eighties was it was still everywhere. Lots of people still had black and white TVs. People wanted color. They wanted color, and they wanted convincing special effects. Classic movies offered neither of those things. So while classic movies became more and more accessible and available, I was mostly seeing films starring still active stars—Gene Hackman in particular, but soon Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman, with Steve McQueen also in there. I’d see something different every once in a while; we had a LaserDisc player, which meant Criterion, and my dad had a solid collection of classics. But I more wanted Jaws Criterion; movies twenty years old, not forty or sixty.
But then I read Washington Goes to War, and something about history clicked, so I started reading more history books. The book, about Washington D.C.’s World War II-fueled boom, mentioned The More the Merrier, which synergized the interests—movies about contemporary events, which had since become history, had all sorts of layers I loved thinking my way through.
So pretty soon after high school, I started watching old movies profusely and intentionally. I’m not sure if the classics were fifty percent—I saw a lot of movies—but it was close.
It was the early days of the Internet; I couldn’t read Films of the Golden Age online, but I know I found their website to subscribe. AllMovie might have been a thing, offering on-demand film history information. We’d had at least two of the Encarta CD Encyclopedias from Microsoft, and they were great for film history, though arguably better when they licensed clips from Turner.
They later had longer Leonard Maltin entries, historical not capsule, and a back catalog of Roger Ebert reviews you’d otherwise have to read on microfilm at the time. You could learn lots.
And learning has always been a part of it. X, y, or z happens in the movie, and it’s a reference to something—if I knew about Vichy water before undergrad and the film professor telling us, I don’t remember. But I do remember finding it out after having seen Casablanca a few times. Until then, I just thought Claude Rains was being dramatic (totally in line with Louis), not making a contemporary political statement about the human condition.
It was tough only learning about classic film passively or through osmosis. But, as I deliberately tried to know more, the interest became much more rewarding; things suddenly made sense. For example, I was in middle school when I first started noticing actors in old movies sometimes didn’t appear together, but then others appeared together all the time. It’d be years before I learned about the studio system, even as MGM/UA’s home video branding tried to hammer the idea in. I also didn’t know about the studios owning theaters or the Production Code. I’m not sure I learned it was called the Hays Code until college.
Today, I’m sure you could learn all I’d pieced together from my parents, grandparents, family friends, video store clerks, Maltin capsules, audio commentaries, something I’d once read somewhere (I’m still convinced I read Bride of Frankenstein was severely edited down to 70 minutes), and everything else in five good hours of Wikipedia. It’s an entirely different time to get into classic film. A better time.
Growing up, rare movies airing on television were major events. I remember one time Out of the Past aired, people had multiple recordings going at once in case someone’s VCR failed. VCR recordings always seemed to fail when you really didn’t want any problems.
Now, of course, you can watch Out of the Past, no network of friends with good PBS signals and decent VCRs required. You can read all about its making without happening upon a book or lucking into a helpful citation. I remember film books were bad at citations.
Though many classic film books were memoirs, which wouldn’t have them.
You probably can’t easily read the old, out-of-print memoirs easily today. And they’re not floating around used bookstores. But there’s still Open Library. Life will find a way.
And there are, of course, classic movies with VHS releases and no subsequent home video releases. No DVD, no Blu-ray, no streaming. Well, some of them are available streaming because of copyright lapses and so on, but they don’t look as good as Out of the Past. After years of being wishy-washy about classic movie releases, Warner Bros. fully committed to Warner Archive and released countless rarities. Unlike the Criterion Collection, which remains expensive but not unattainable (if you started at jump), it soon became clear one would have to pick and choose wisely with Warner Archive. There was already too much when they dropped the initial set, and they just released more and more.
Now, in 2022, Warner Archive is probably in trouble. They’ve probably been in trouble for what seems like a decade but is perhaps only six or eight years. For whatever reason—despite a rabid fan base—Warner always seems ready to get rid of the MOD label and delete the masters from the hard drives, even before they started deleting the masters from hard drives. They were also bad about the no-brainer streaming platform. And then there was Filmstruck.
So despite the studios bungling it, they still managed to deliver more classic movies than anyone could imagine. Warner Archive ran out of titles of their own to release and started releasing licensed titles from other studios.
And TCM has remained a champion of classic film, even though it’ll be twenty years since I’ve watched it. The website, when properly run, has been phenomenal over the years. It never fulfilled its promise but sometimes seemed like it would, which is better than anything else has done.
As a genre, classic film has opened up as well. Mainly in the last fifteen years, thanks in no small part to TCM and film scholars and enthusiasts who aren’t cishet white men soapboxing about Magnificent Ambersons being better than Citizen Kane, actually. There’s still a lot more opening up to do and a disappointing amount of support from the studios, but it’s not impossible. The studios might not come around, but the people will.
I have, until now, avoided the subjective nature of the phrase “classic cinema.” One person’s classics are another’s childhood favorites, and so on, but every year, more movies become classics. Today, with a thriving silent film restoration cottage industry, it seems unlikely we’ll lose a film for every one aged into the category. Of course, significant restoration efforts are needed, but much of it is in the hands of those disinterested studios, who shove their classic movie catalogs into drawers until required.
One has to imagine they’ll care when it gets closer to those catalogs moving into the public domain, but one’s often wrong.
And I’d love to make a good Warner Bros. zing here, but it’s not like Disney has their Fox catalog streaming on Hulu or Disney+. They are at least licensing the titles; Sitting Pretty has a Blu-ray. I remember when you could buy it with the other Clifton Webb Mr. Belvedere movies from a table at Comicon.
Of course, doing the math from my childhood—thirty-five years from the end of the Golden Age—for the kid today, it’s the mid-eighties, which I suppose is better than the early nineties. But classic movies—even as I have an arbitrary cut-off here on the blog—aren’t about saying before or after this point; they’re a combination of nostalgia, historical interest (there’s a reason fifties movies never caught on like Golden Age), inventive filmmaking, ambitious performances, and so much more.
There’s also a lot of cringe and problematic content, which is sometimes worth navigating, and sometimes not. Thanks to de facto curators like Criterion and TCM (not to mention astonishingly toxic other fandoms), classic cinema is easily the most welcoming, inclusive (while lacking in specific diversity) fandom I’ve encountered. As a cishet white man, my experiences have been different than many; at best, much of my demographic has just been rude and tried to gatekeep. And there are worsts–lots of them.
When I pop in The Thin Man (not how it works), make sure it’s rewound (also not how it works), and hit play (still how it works), I’m greeted with waves of nostalgia. Nostalgia for other movies with the same cast and, say, the novel; so, nostalgia for the content and related content. But also for my memories, some shared with friends and family, some solo. Those memories include the details I’ve learned, read, or heard over the years. Of course, since I’m a big fan, there’s specific content I get nostalgic about too. But it all synthesizes into a metaphorical beanbag chair of perfectly fit comfort.
And now, without further ado, an entirely unplanned list of classic film recommendations, in no particular order: Canyon Passage (1946), Napoleon (1927), Wild River (1960), Bright Victory (1951), The Last Hurrah (1958), The More the Merrier (1943), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Of Human Bondage (1946), Anastasia (1956), Grand Hotel (1932).